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Disney's Great Leap

'Lion King' opens on Broadway next week: Can it merge commercial instincts with artistic ambitions?

November 03, 1997|PATRICK PACHECO | Special To The Times

Taymor had never seen "The Lion King" when she was first contacted, so Schumacher sent her a tape of the feature and CDs of the soundtrack and "Rhythm of the Pride Lands," a follow-up album by Hans Zimmer, Mark Mancina and Lebo M, the South African composer and musician who is featured in the cast of the show, based on their contributions to the animated feature. Its haunting South African chorales and songs such as "He Lives in You" and "Shadowland" would form an integral part of Taymor's leitmotif, more so than the five songs of Elton John and Tim Rice (they wrote three more for the Broadway musical).

Taymor says that when she received the call from Schumacher she was ready for a new challenge. In fact, she adds, she was surprised that no one had yet asked her to work on Broadway, although her debut--"Juan Darien" at the nonprofit Lincoln Center last season ("That's not really like working on Broadway," she says)--had garnered five Tony nominations, including one for her as director.

"I like to change styles," she says, sitting in the warm yet austerely elegant apartment she shares with her partner and frequent collaborator, composer Elliot Goldenthal. "I've done theater for 20 years, so I was ready to work with 'the Big D.' It's not that we don't have things in common. My studies were in folklore and mythology, and that's the same territory as Disney. But at first I really wanted to know that they were hiring me not for what I could do but for what I would want to do."

Eisner says that he never considered the stage version of "Lion King" as a risk in the way that others have, because he felt "that the story and music were fundamentally sound." (Indeed, the animated feature is the most successful picture in Disney history, having grossed more than $450 million.) "I knew if we stuck closely to those elements and found an original way to present it, we'd be fairly risk-averse."

Yet in early drafts, Taymor did stray from the original story by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, going to a whole new land and introducing new characters in the second act. As a result, Schumacher sent her back to the drawing board.

By all accounts, in the two-year development of the stage version through readings and workshops, there were only a couple of particularly crucial turning points for the creative team, which comprised Schneider, Schumacher, Taymor, Mancina, Lebo M, Michael Curry and later set designer Richard Hudson. The first one came in January 1996, with the unveiling of the "Gazelle wheel"--herds of galloping creatures attached to a bicycle-like contraption. It was to become a signature of sorts for Taymor's entire design of the show.

"In traditional puppet theater, you'd hide the wheels and just see the gazelles leaping," Taymor says, "but to me that's just totally unmagical. What is magic to me is to be able to reveal the manipulation, the wires and human beings, and yet you can't believe that the puppet still has such a soul and spirit and animation and life to it. I knew that I was fighting the film, so I wanted to make the experience as tactile as possible."

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When the team, rather nervously, unveiled the contraption to Eisner, he immediately "got it," says Schumacher, and told them to proceed.

"I knew the conceit would work," Eisner says. "And I knew, too, that kids would get it more quickly than adults. They get the symbolism instantly."

The second turning point came at a workshop last January. With the out-of-town tryout in Minneapolis looming, Disney's Eisner, Schneider and Schumacher were not convinced that Taymor's animal-human hybrid conceptions would work for the principal characters. They thought it might be confusing for the audience to see both the mask or puppet and the person manipulatingor acting behind them.

Taymor understood why the three might not "yet trust it," but she insisted on a workshop with full makeup, costumes and lighting and offered three prototypes, including the traditional (a full costume for Timon, for example) and the experimental (the retractable headdress mask). In each case, Eisner went for the most experimental.

"I figured, with the opportunity to go in several directions within the conceit that Julie had set up, we might as well go for it," he says now.

Taymor says she would have gone with whatever choices were made but that she had been very impressed with Disney's willingness to gamble to a degree.

She says she and Eisner also had their share of disagreements, notably in Minneapolis, when the chairman insisted that Simba, in a rite of passage, fight the hyenas to prove he had the heroic mettle to be king. Taymor believed that his journey should be more "subtle," that it had less to do with "kicking ass" than a coming-of-age story that focused on his inner conflict over who he is and where he belongs.

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